June 12, 2002 AMHERST, Mass. – Most people lie in everyday conversation when they are trying to appear likable and competent, according to a study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman and published in the most recent Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
The study, published in the journal's June issue, found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.
"People tell a considerable number of lies in everyday conversation. It was a very surprising result. We didn't expect lying to be such a common part of daily life," Feldman said.
The study also found that lies told by men and women differ in content, though not in quantity. Feldman said the results showed that men do not lie more than women or vice versa, but that men and women lie in different ways. "Women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better," Feldman said.
A group of 121 pairs of undergraduate UMass students were recruited to participate in the study. They were told that the purpose of the study was to examine how people interact when they meet someone new. Participants were told they would have a 10-minute conversation with another person. Some participants were told to try to make themselves appear likable. Others were told to appear competent. A third, control group was not directed to present themselves in any particular way.
Participants were unaware that the session was being videotaped through a hidden camera. At the end of the session, participants were told they had been videotaped and consent was obtained to use the video-recordings for research.
The students were then asked to watch the video of themselves and identify any inaccuracies in what they had said during the conversation. They were encouraged to identify all lies, no matter how big or small.
Feldman said the students who participated in the study were surprised at their own results. "When they were watching themselves on videotape, people found themselves lying much more than they thought they had," Feldman said.
The lies the students told varied considerably, according to Feldman. Some were relatively minor, such as agreeing with the person with whom they were speaking that they liked someone when they really did not. Others were more extreme, such as falsely claiming to be the star of a rock band.
"It's so easy to lie," Feldman said. "We teach our children that honesty is the best policy, but we also tell them it's polite to pretend they like a birthday gift they've been given. Kids get a very mixed message regarding the practical aspects of lying, and it has an impact on how they behave as adults."
Feldman is currently studying how often people lie in job interviews, and plans to expand on the research by studying the types of behaviors people exhibit when they are lying. His previous research has included a study that found the most popular students in school sometimes are the best liars.
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